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Alan Jacobs

The Uses of Ignorance

C. S. Lewis in America

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What follows is a talk given at Wheaton College on November 1, 2013 at a conference sponsored by the Marion Wade Center on the American influence on C. S. Lewis. It is a response to papers by George Mardsen and Mark Noll. I have answered their scholarly labors with more personal reflections.

Now that George and Mark have given us some important elements of the reception-history of C. S. Lewis, I want to step back from the research they have provided and try to give an account, from a distance, of what it seems to me their research adds up to—and to offer some speculations of my own.

One lesson to be learned from the papers we have heard today is just how carefully Lewis articulated his "mere Christianity" so that it seemed "mere" indeed—recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see, as George rightly notes, "that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis's genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself." Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

I think Lewis himself is the best articulator of this point, in the wonderful introduction he wrote for the translation of Athanasius's On the Incarnation made by his friend Sister Penelope Lawson. These are words that we may do well to keep in mind throughout our discussion:

The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that "Christianity" is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urbane sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed "Paganism" of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: "An air that kills / From yon far country blows."
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

(A digression: It has long seemed to me, and someone may have written about this without my knowing it, that there is a close intellectual kinship between Lewis's discovery of the "positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible" Christianity that persists through the ages and the dominant note of his scholarship, which is the kinship between medieval and Renaissance literature. The widespread belief that between, say, "Thomist Dante" and "Puritan Bunyan" there is a great gulf fixed was something Lewis sought to refute both as a theological writer and as a literary scholar. Lewis was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, and, as he himself noted in his inaugural lecture, not too many decades earlier such a conjunction would have been thought absurd. Perhaps his most lasting achievement as a scholar was to demolish the simplistic idea that the Renaissance constituted a decisive and complete repudiation of the medieval intellectual and literary world. Most lasting, yes, but not permanent: that very idea, in an astonishingly reductive form, underlies Stephen Greenblatt's recent book The Swerve, which portrays a handful of Renaissance humanists recovering the great Lucretius from the silence and darkness to which he had been condemned by the benighted pseudo-scholars of the Middle Ages. To the abject consternation of many medievalists, The Swerve won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. So as valuable and as influential as Lewis's demolition of that simplistic dichotomy was, it has zombie-like powers of recovery, and we need more scholars, Christian or not, to rise up and cut off its head. But the question is: Will scholars, including medievalists, who know little about Christianity be as perceptive as Lewis was about the forces that serve to link historical periods? I have my doubts. Few if any intellectual victories are permanent, a fact lovers of C. S. Lewis's work might do well to recall. End of digression.)

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